Soviet Reunion

Last week, Yugyeong and I met with god and the devil in the Bulgarian countryside, crossed the Danube into Romania, before surviving a freezing Transfagaraʂan Highway to reach Bran. This week, we begin the journey north, through some of Europe’s darkest, and most surprising corners.

Day 92 – Bran, Romania to Chiʂinau, Moldova

Our penultimate week on the road began in the town of Bran, famous for one thing and one thing only: Dracula’s castle. It is true that a splendid castle does exist in Bran, and for all the advertising seen in the town, you could be forgiven for thinking that a famous vampire had once called it home. However, the ‘real’ Dracula, Vlad the Impaler (whom Bram Stoker based his novel upon), was only known to have stayed there for three days. Need I mention that he wasn’t actually a vampire? He simply enjoyed impaling people.

Despite a tedious link to the gruesome torturer, the architecture alone was worth the price of admission, and would have been even more enjoyable if they dropped the Dracula-theme entirely (maybe the bus-loads of Chinese tourists wouldn’t have bothered then). After visiting the Hollywood-esque signs of Raʂnov and Brasov, we had over three hundred kilometres to drive to make it to the Moldovan border (not something I ever thought I’d hear myself say). After a brief questioning as to why we were entering Moldova (tourism drew blank looks), we were suspiciously signalled into the country, and headed straight for the capital: Chiʂinau. Can’t wait.

Day 93 – Chiʂinau, Moldova to Todireʂti, Moldova

Only San Marino and Liechtenstein are visited less (in terms of European countries) than Moldova. That’s rather impressive given that it is over one hundred and fifty times bigger than them both combined. Furthermore, using a scale of visitors per resident, it comes out third bottom… in the world (behind Bangladesh and Guinea). Gee whiz! We were here to prove the numbers wrong. To find a hidden gem in ex-Soviet Russia… here goes nothing.

Well, upon first glance, there isn’t an obvious number of things to see or do, but we delved really deep (literally) and discovered a vineyard on the outskirts of the city that has the largest wine cellar in the world. It also has an eye-squinting admission price (for Moldova at least), so we merely had a look around their gardens, tried some of the free samples, before heading to an ex-soviet state circus.

The imposing building has been abandoned for decades, but is extremely slowly undergoing renovation (it started in 2004 – I don’t hold out much hope of it finishing soon). The city also has a couple of nice parks, and nice pubs, and is a fairly nice place to walk around. It’s clean, quiet and… my apologies, there just isn’t much else to say. We were planning to stay in Chiʂinau another day, but what was the point, especially as there is somewhere far more intriguing we can visit, that Moldova likes to keep quiet.

Day 94 – Todireʂti, Moldova to Odessa, Ukraine

We camped thirty kilometres south-east of the capital, on route to Ukraine. But we weren’t entering the largest country in Europe (excluding Russia) just yet, we had to transit the self-proclaimed soviet nation of Transnistria. The slither of land we were about to cross has been fought over for close-to thirty years, without a straightforward outcome. Transnistria has its own government, currency, number plates, and (most disturbingly) has heavily-militarized borders. However, virtually no other countries on earth (apart from Russia and a few other ‘frozen-conflict’ zones) recognise its sovereign status. We paid the two hundred Transnistrian Rubles required for a ten-hour visa, and entered.

Hammers, sickles, Russian flags, tanks, busts of war heroes, and just about every other Soviet stereotype was on display from the moment we left the border guards in our wake. It was only a twelve-kilometre drive to the capital, Tiraspol, but it felt like twelve thousand (we were slightly on edge). With the impression that we were being followed, we abandoned Toby as we arrived in the city, and proceeded by foot. The capital is a small one, but we found a bustling market to buy lunch in, and all the famous war memorials were well attended by groups of schoolchildren and adults alike (it would appear the brainwashing starts from a young age).

We took as many inquisitive photos as we dared, without trying to attract the attention of the KGB (slight exaggeration), before hastily returning to the car. After a visit to a couple of Russian Orthodox cathedrals on the outskirts of Tiraspol, our soviet adventure was over. Transnistria is less than twenty kilometres wide in some places, and it wasn’t long before the welcomed sight of the Ukrainian border was upon us. A quick crossing, and we were back in a recognised nation. Moldova wasn’t so dull after all.

Day 95 – Odessa, Ukraine to Kyiv, Ukraine

We began our day in the Black Sea city of Odessa, in southern Ukraine. Our first port of call was, apparently, the largest catacomb system… in the world (we seem to hear that slogan a lot), which was hidden underneath northern Odessa. Most recently used as a Soviet bunker during World War II, the tunnels were left largely as they were found many years later, with weapons, school books, and hospital beds still in situ. Tourists are only able to visit a tiny fraction of the tunnel system, and there is no doubt we would have gotten ourselves lost, if we didn’t have the assistance of a Ukrainian fellow.

Our excitement for the day was well-and-truly over, though, as we now had an almost five-hundred-kilometre drive to Kyiv (Ukrainian’s prefer this spelling over the Russian-translated Kiev) to undertake – with nothing of any interest on the way. The road was staggeringly flat, straight (have a look at an atlas), and passed through a landscape as barren and dull as any we had seen to date. This no longer troubles us, as we are pretty much done with ‘interesting’ roads – motorway all the way will be fine. We swiftly found our Kyiv hostel, and went out for Korean food – to Yugyeong’s unembellished delight.

Day 96 – Kyiv, Ukraine

Having left it too late to visit Chernobyl (a tour must be arranged with an accredited guide a week in advance), we had to content ourselves with visiting its museum in the capital. Road signs of the towns lost to the exclusion-zone hang from the ceiling, whilst the rooms are filled with poignant artefacts from lives transformed in the hours and days after the disaster. I remember when I was young, and children from the inflicted area used to visit my Primary School in Wales for a few weeks in the summer (to have some respite from the radioactive region), not then understanding what had happened to them. It will be another twenty thousand years before the land becomes habitable again.

Kyiv is home to the most impressive orthodox cathedrals we have seen throughout the ex-Soviet Union, and no expense has been spared in restoring them. We spent some hours marvelling at several located close to the city centre, before making our way to Independence Square: the scene of mass-protests against the now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych just three years ago. Things initially appeared back-to-normal, until we attempted to walk passed the parliament building.

We wanted to visit a palace close to the government offices, but the road had been commandeered by a new-wave of protesters, opposed to the current president’s lack of interest in tackling the high-level corruption that has plighted the country for years. After passing through a military-style checkpoint, we (inadvertently) were right in the centre of the melee, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of weaponised army and police. After passing tent-upon-tent of masked-and-camouflaged protesters, and having watched them start a fire at one end of the street, we thought it best to visit the palace another time! We made for the deepest subway station… in the world (at one hundred and five metres below-ground), and caught a train back to our hostel – feeling like we’ve played the pivotal role in ousting another Ukrainian president.

Day 97 – Kyiv, Ukraine to Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine

A weekend is too-brief-a-time to be spent in Kyiv, and we still had an impossibly long list of places that the tourist map stated we must visit, or risk being deported. Having to be selective, we decided upon the oldest monastery in the city, and saw yet more remarkable cathedrals (and an equally-remarkable bell tower). We were also taken to the catacombs below one of the earliest churches, and bore-witness to the quite peculiar sight of scores of worshippers kissing the glass coffins of overly-visible cadavers.

After eating a chicken kiev, another tourist requirement (despite the fact its origins have nothing to do with Kyiv), we had just enough time to visit the impressive World War II memorial and gardens. The enormous silver figure is Ukraine’s answer to Cristo Redentor, and can be seen from most parts of the city. With it being too late to go inside the museum, we attempted to beat the traffic (and failed) out of the capital, and headed across the barren northern marshlands to Belarus. We’re now camped at a petrol station, a full nine hundred metres from the Belarussian border, fully prepared for our last potentially-bothersome crossing of the trip.

Day 98 – Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine to Makariv, Ukraine

Did I say, “fully prepared?” I couldn’t have been more mistaken. As we reached Ukrainian passport control, and they began the examination of our documents, we received the usual blank, bemused looks from the border guards that we have become quite accustomed to. This time, however, there was a rather large problem.

Having researched the Belarusian entry-requirements slightly less than other countries, I was under the impression that a five-day visa could be issued on arrival (sighting several sources, including Wikipedia). That is indeed true – if you arrive by air. Unless Toby generated wings and two jet engines overnight, we were not arriving by air. Although, the Ukrainian officials informed us we were free to give Belarus a go: which we did.

Ukraine was correct, and we were sent back almost instantly, to join the two-hour queue to return to the country we had just left – blow. Infuriating though it was, it means we have a couple of extra days in a country we are thoroughly enjoying. But first, a two-hundred-kilometre drive back to Kyiv. We better get our skates on, just eight days left to get home.

Distance Travelled: 23,417km


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